As you know from our previous posts, we dont like to book things on our first day arriving in a new place, especially since we flew in to Rome. Flights can be tiring and any potential delays make picking a timed entrance to a place difficult.
Instead we love to wander and explore and feel out the vibe of the immediate neighborhood we are in, plus get in a major site or two from the outside to really make it feel like we are in a new, exciting location. This decision ultimately worked against us in Rome unfortunately.
We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood which felt so charming and full of culture. Immediately we were surrounded by light, color and life.
Great restaurants were on every corner and it is clearly a local area to go out as well as a tourist hotspot. Pink and orange hues lit up at sunset on the beautiful old buildings. Rome truly felt vibrant and colorful in this area.
The first dish we had Roman Chicken which was absolutely delicious. It set my standards high! I had never even heard of it before researching this trip but once I spotted it on the menu I knew I had to order it.
I highly reccomend any place that serves traditional Roman food and not just the typical pasta and pizza. Of course you need to get the pizza and pasta too, just also make sure to try something new and unexpected as well. That’s the beauty of travel! Roman artichokes are another great appetizer to try that many people I’ve talked to had not heard of. Both Roman dishes were wonderful and I did not see them on the menu outside Rome throughout the rest of our time in Italy.
Hey now, everyone knows the number one sight for any Lizzie McGuire fan is to see the Trevi Fountain. I’m absolutely positive it is a main site for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie as well, but this was high on Jamie’s list. It was an amazing “we’re here” moment to see the immaculate fountain at sunset, and it wasn’t even overly crowded.
More important than being featured in a Disney movie, among many other films, is that this is the place where the main aqueduct brought in fresh water to Rome for centuries. The fountain symbolizes the life giving power of water and the abundance it creates.
This is probably the most famous fountain in the world, not just Europe. It was so stunning we ended up spending time throughout our stay there, seeing it at different hours of the day.
Our route to the fountain took us by the iconic Pantheon as well. We admired the two thousand year old free standing dome from the outside at first, slightly intimidated by the long lines queued up outside. The lines are misleading however, when we did decide to visit it moved much faster than anticipated.
The Pantheon is free to enter on weekdays but you will need to pay to get in on the weekends. We highly recommend visiting it on a weekday for that exact reason.
Rome is a walkable city in that many of the major sites are about ten minutes for each other. The walking really adds up going around the city all day though. It truly is a massive metropolis.
Nearby the Trevi Fountain are the Spanish Steps, it’s a known thing to do however it wasn’t our favorite or personally that interesting to me. You’ll be fined if you sit on the steps, so be aware! The view from the top was nice and it was great to take in Rome with some iconic first sites.
Piazza Navona is a “must see”, maybe the square to see out of all the Piazzas in Rome. It is beautiful and large with plenty of restaurants we do not recommend eating at. Anyone trying to get you to sit down at their resturant already located in a main piazza is definitely a place to avoid. What you want to seek out are busy restaurants down uncrowded streets. That usually indicates people make the trek just to eat at a great spot, not simply for conveinece of location.
We saw the Piazza at dusk as the light changed into darkness and it was truly gorgeous. Rome is full of amazing public areas to take in the glory of this city.
We attempted to site see the major archaeological spots, however the Pope was having a visit followed by a speech that day and the Colosseum was actually fully closed! This threw off our plans a bit since we had anticipated walking around the Colosseum and Forum for several hours.
This never happens. The Colosseum is only supposed to be closed Christmas and New Years. No notice was posted, the websites did not mention anything and even the security and employees around the area were unsure if the public could enter or not.
We were surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, all confused and walking in circles around the massive complex trying to find the entrance. All standard tickets were sold out for the next five days and we could see tours online booking up each time we refreshed the website pages. It was a race against the clock to find an affordable tour and book it online before the time slots filled. We saw dozens of people on their phones trying to do exactly what we were rushing to do as well, book an affordable tour.
We were not able to walk up to any attraction and enter the same day in Rome. In Paris we were able to book things a day before or even that morning so we didn’t think we needed such advanced bookings for Rome. Especially in October which is supposed to be a shoulder season when less people visit. The websites themselves are confusing as well, there are often several competing sites that all offer differing prices of tickets and tours.
Seeing how busy it was, we also booked our Vatican ticket right after the Colosseum. Only evenings were available by then. One tip is that St. Peter’s basilica is free but the Vatican Museum that contains the Sistine chapel requires a ticket.
Even some smaller archaeology sites like the Domus Aurea and Trajan’s Forum were full in October, while Covid was still going on! I believe our trip coincided with several special events like art galleries in the Domus and an outdoor movie at Trajan’s Forum which may have been unique to our visit.
We couldn’t believe it. Book your tickets in advance and plan out what you want to see before arriving. Rome seemed to require more advanced planning than other cities.
I need to come back to Rome and simply have an archaeology day where we see every spot on my list that we were unable to get to. One strong recommendation that we simply did not have time for was to stroll along the Appian Way on a Sunday. The road is closed to vehicles then and you can get a true feeling of what it was like without the traffic and noise it might typically have.
We still got to take some great pictures outside the Colosseum however and the monumental Arches were very impressive to see.
We rested during the morning and planned out future activities.
Vatican City was our main attraction this day. We walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica and were able to see the beautiful cathedral. It was almost too gaudy for our tastes, especially for an organization that purports to help the poor. The concentration of wealth inside seems absurd to me personally. Be aware there is a dress code for all people to have their shoulders and knees covered, although they didn’t seem to enforce it too strictly.
The Vatican Museum followed next. It is a massive complex, much larger than we realized. There are several museums all connected and you are required to walk through them all on the route we took.
Inside the museums there were simply stunning rooms and impossibly immaculate ceilings. So much so that the Sistine Chapel was actually slightly disappointing once we reached it, as insane as that sounds! The room immediately preceding was personally more stunning and intricate, with gold decor and mind blowing crown moulding. Of course it is a cultural giant and you must see the Sistine ceiling still!
As for food and snacks, every gelato we got was simply divine. Eat it everyday. We discovered a love for pistachio flavor! It is nutty and creamy and perfect for a day of walking around and exploring.
Try to avoid pasta dishes typically served in the United States. They cater too much to tourists. Don’t get spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccini alfredo. Pasta is typically a side dish and not a main course so be aware they don’t contain much meat and are not as large as we expect at home.
To be one hundred percent honest, neither Jamie nor I are huge Italian food fans to begin with. What we so strongly reccomend is to get meats and fruits and cheeses from small shops and make your own charcuterie boards for a fraction of the cost. The individual ingredients are incredibly high quality and the tartufo peccarino was life-changingly delicious.
The positive side is we found tons of gluten free options to give me a real taste of Rome even with my multiple food allergies. I was so pleasantly surprised at how many spots offered gluten free pasta and pizza. Thank you Alexa for giving us the heads up or else I may not have even asked. In the gluten capitol of the world you can still get a real taste of classic Italian food!
One strong recommendation is to order as much red wine as possible. It’s so earthy, spicy and deeply rich. The house wine is almost always better than anything you can get in the US. Plus it’s cheap! A half liter is about 2/3rds of a bottle and usually cost us only slightly more than a single glass would.
That night I was pretty upset at not getting to see some major archaeology sites yet so I wandered around to see the ancient city as best as I could for free. The Circus Maximus is a wide open green space where chariot races once took place. That day it was set up for a marathon which shows how this place is still being used for sporting competitions on occasion.
Then I made my way to the Capitoline Hill, one of the two most important areas of the old city. The square on top is small but stunning and was designed by Michaelangelo. This is a must see for any art or history fan. Although the museum was sold out (plan your days better then we did!) the buildings themselves, and the view of the Forum from the top, was fantastic. It was incredible to imagine all the debates assassinations and history that had happened on and near this hill.
I then made my way down to Trajan’s Forum. This ancient marketplace and shopping center can be mostly explored for free and seemed to be mostly empty as well. From Vie dei Fori Imperiali, the main historical street of the city, you can venture just off to the side and walk down onto platforms that just begin to enter Trajan’s Forum. You need to pay to actually walk inside the forum itself but the free viewing areas provided everything you would need. Don’t buy a ticket, just walk around the platforms and pathways and peer into the ancient marketplace from above. The free walkways are a great tour and a good way to see some archaeology even if everything else is booked.
If you find yourself short on cash or unable to book time slots for the interiors, I highly recommend this route I took: The Circus Maximus, Marcello’s Theater, The Capitoline Hill, Trajan’s Market, Via dei Fori Imperiali down to the Colosseum from the outside.
Trajan expanded the Empire to reach it’s largest geographical extent. He didn’t do much ruling from Rome since he was away on military campaigns most of the time but he is remembered fondly by the people at the time for providing funds to help the poor and sick. He was generally loved and considered one of the greatest emperors ever.
Colosseum day! We booked a guided tour which we typically never do since I do extensive research into the history beforehand. I still enjoyed the tour and the information was interesting enough that if you aren’t a massive Rome history buff you will learn a lot.
The tour included the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Imperial Forum which formed the core of the ancient Roman city. It is an absolute must to visit the Forum and Colosseum to truly gain a sense of the majesty, grandeur and enduring legacy of such a long lasting and influential Empire. The name “Forum” can be slightly confusing as there are two, the Imperial and Trajan’s. In ancient times these forums were linked together but today they are two separate areas.
I did learn that the current Colosseum is only the inner ring of what was once a three ringed stadium. The outer two rings collapsed in an earthquake many years after Rome had declined. It was used as a living quarter for a medieval family and many medieval Italians plundered the marble from the seats and took down the statues from the many niches to re-use as they saw fit. We can only imagine how splendid the stadium was in it’s prime.
One tiny fact that made me humanize the ancient city even more was that you were issued a ticket with your entrance gate and seat number on it much like going to a modern sporting event today.
The Imperial Forum’s scale is so impressive even today. The skeletol building that remain still tower over modern creations and really give you a sense of how collosal this city was in it’s prime.
After this long tour we went back and rested at our place. It is important to recover an rest when you’re walking around and seeing this much each day.
That night I went out and explored our local neighborhood’s niglife some more. All the clubs were closed, something typically packed on weekend nights, so the streets were filled with high school and college aged kids roaming around, getting drunk and finding places to blast their music.
It was fun to see the liveliness and acceptance of alcohol not seen at home. They were all pretty respectful and most knew how to handle themselves and take care of their drunk friends. It reminded me of the nights in college when hordes of us would all head out for the night and just fill the streets with sounds of young drunken flirty fun.
Italy is known for the Negroni cocktail. I enjoyed two of them that night and was pleasantly surprised at the bitter and strong flavors it presents.
This was our resting and planning day. We used this opportunity to explore our “home” neighborhood of Trastevere even more. It was so much fun people watching and grabbing amazing wines. The best mushroom risotto I’ve ever experienced was found here.
Eating pasta and pizza all day can make you tired, we wanted some refreshing energy and found it in an awesome lox, arugula, caper and lemon dish that made us feel healthy and light. Rome, and Italy in general, is also known for its seafood, don’t neglect those dishes on your trip here!
There are enough restaurants and bars that you don’t ever need to leave Trastevere to eat and drink if you don’t want to. If you want a feel of a vibrant local area with plenty of things to do, try to stay here.
We also planned out our next few days of travel. Our AirBnB host gave us a heads up about an impending transportation strike so we had some decisions to go over. Did we want to risk travelling by train on a day when the trains were supposed to shut down? Did we risk running into striking workers or a train that stopped midway through it’s route? Would leaving and following our scheduled plan just make things more difficult for us?
To make it easy on ourselves we booked another day in this historical and massive city. Our room for one night was right by the Trevi Fountain in an ever better location to see the ancient sites than our previous stay was. This allowed us to get another feel for the city and showed us how important location is to receiving different experiences.
Jamie and I went to Piazza Navona again at night, it was such a beautiful place we couldn’t just see it once. We went piazza hopping and went from one stunning plaza to the next, exploring the fountains and statues and sites. It’s always fun to people watch and see the liveliness of a city like this one. People actually use their public spaces in Europe.
We ended up making this an extra unplanned day because of the transportation strike. We had just booked this accommodation the night before, adding a flare of spontaneity to our stay. We packed our bags and hiked across Rome to our new room.
Since it was a weekday we decided to visit the Pantheon from the inside finally. After walking by it almost every day, we needed to see the impressive interior. The massive freestanding dome is so awe striking to see. Each niche used to hold a space for individual pagan gods, however those are long gone and it is now a Christian church.
That night I went out to dinner determined to get the classic pasta and pizza dishes Italy is famous for. I found it at Voglio di Pizza: the best gluten free restaurant I’ve ever experienced. It offered everything, I ordered suppli, which are fried rice balls, pesto pasta and a prosciutto pizza. That plus the house red made for an amazing meal that I will never forget.
Unfortunately Jamie was sick throughout most of our time here and we needed to rest and recoup a good chunk of the days. With a trip this long you need to listen to your body and make sure not to push yourself beyond your limits.
Even with some minor setbacks, getting sick, sites being unavailable at the times we wanted and a transportation strike changing our travel plans, we absolutely loved Rome. It is one of my top cities to revisit already, and we just left! There is simply so much to see and do and taste. Wandering the streets of our neighborhood gave us so much energy and we truly felt alive. It was wonderful to pretend we were in the Capitol of the classical Mediterranean world while exploring all that the modern city had to offer as well.
Ciao Rome, we will meet again.
Before the trip one of my bucket list places to visit was Pompeii, the Roman city covered by lava and ash perfectly preserving huge chunks of the town. The closest major city to Pompeii today is Naples, the town of Pompei is actually surrounding the archaeology park. Note the subtle spelling difference.
Naples is a true southern Italian city. We could clearly see a culture divide between Rome and Naples, even more accentuated by our visit right afterwards to Florence.
Naples was loud. It was chaotic. It was hectic.
I’m extremely observant and cautious and I nearly got ran over several times crossing the streets at night.
People are loud, everyone had their phone on speaker and we could never tell if two people were just taking or truly screaming at each other.
It is a very animated place. We didn’t stay in the best area. In fact there was a fish market just below us which may have contributed to the smells and sounds just being overwhelming.
However we both had the best pizzas of our lives here. Again they offered some gluten free options at specific places. I couldnt get enough. The buffalo cheese mozerella and prosciutto pizzas were unreal out of this world delicious. The prices are fantastic, some places offers £1 cocktails and entire pizzas were between £4-10.
Naples is still heavily influenced by the mafia, they run several city services like the ambulances and used to dominate the trash pick ups as well. This leads to a city that doesn’t function as well as it could. They are no threat to tourists, it is not like visiting a city run by drug cartels or anything like that.
The mafia loves to see tourist money come in so they can extort local shops even more. But the general vibe is a sketchy one. Crime itself isn’t higher, Rome is technically more dangerous than Naples if you compare statistics, but the feeling of Naples is much darker.
Unfortunately I can’t say that I reccomend Naples. We did not stay in a tourist area, which also contributed heavily to the feeling of being out of place. There were not major sites by us and every place was cash only.
Getting to Pompeii was difficult for us. For whatever reason the direct train did not run all the way. It came to a halt only a few stops outside of the city and we needed to transfer to a bus which took us to another train which dropped us off still a 20 minute walk from Pompeii.
This didn’t bother me at all once we reached the ancient city. It is such a bucket list destination for me I was immediately awed and inspired by all the well constructed buildings and the seemingly never ending streets to explore and wander. It is a true archaeologists paradise.
The preservation of the buildings, the streets and sidewalks being perfectly preserved and the immaculate layout of the city were truly impressive.
You can get a realistic feel of what it was like to live and function as a Roman here. From the food stalls to the palaces to the apartments and theaters, life here would have been somewhat recognizable even as a modern day person with all our conveniences and luxuries.
You can walk down ancient streets for hours just exploring the neighborhoods and imagining what life was like at the height of the Roman empire.
Several tour info spots explained to us that we need an audio guide to truly experience Pompeii. Not if you do your research ahead of time!
Look for the ruts in the stones in the streets. This is where carts used to pull their goods and transport items throughout the city. The sidewalks are clearly defined as well, easier to follow than some modern cities even!
The raised stepping stones were used to cross the dirty streets without getting muddy. They were perfectly created to allow the carts to pass over them and also function as a crosswalk of sorts across major intersections.
Buildings with countertops at right angles that have holes in them were mostly food stalls. The holes were used to put pots of soups and other fast, easy meals inside. Often the families that ran these restaurants lived in the back few rooms.
You must see the House of the Fawn, containing amazing mosaics, and try to notice the bright and colorful paintings on the best preserved walls. Cities were more colorful back then than we imagined. The paintings often contained imaginary or impossible architecture, unsupported columns or flying rooms. Colors are still spectacularly preserved given their age. Looks for hues of reds and blues, still vibrant after all these years.
The theater and the stadium and impressive to see as well. You can fully walk through them, entering the area like a gladiator would have or taking a seat like a spectator.
Try to visit the brothel and see the tiny stone platforms that I imagine must have been covered in lavish pillows and furs to provide comfort.
There are baths to explore and marvel at as well. Public hygiene was important and the baths contained heated, warm and cool waters depending on what you were seeking.
Palaces are almost all marked by a modern sign, they contain a central plaza area with a fountain or basin to collect rainwater through the hole in the roof. This is usually the entrance to the home, rooms will line the entrance way forming a square. The second square of the house will usually contain private rooms and bedrooms for the family. The House of the Fawn and The House of the Vettii are the most popular houses. The House of the Mysteries is a bit further out of town but supposed to be the most spectacular of them all.
You can easily plan your own visit without the need to buy maps or audio guides, but if you prefer you can always purchase those at the kiosks before entering the park. Another option is an in person guided tour, they can vary in cost and we did not take this option so I can’t give you any specific recommendations on that.
My ultimate suggestion is simply to wander around, get lost, find something not listed here and truly try to imagine how Romans lived. It is spectacular.
Wishing you all the best,
Austin & Jamie